Be the Future?

Be the Monkey: Ebooks and Self-Publishing, a Conversation Between Authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath, by Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. Reviewed by John Patrick Tormey.

No question: there’s a revolution going on here.—Barry Eisler

Best-selling spy novelist Barry Eisler and successful thriller novelist and self-publishing advocate Joe Konrath’s ebook Be the Monkey is a sprawling discussion as recorded on GoogleDocs; a loud cheer for what they call “indie-publishing”, and an autopsy of the publishing industry as it transitions from a paper-based model to one dominated by digital texts.

Indie-publishing is an umbrella title for everything from self-publishing to new publishing companies working outside the model established by the “Big 6/Legacy” institutions that have dominated the industry for decades, and how that may be coming to an end.

In the part one, the authors pivot off Eisler’s announcement that he passed on a half-a-million dollar advance from a big name publisher in favor of self publishing, claiming he made the decision for monetary as well as creative reasons, and was inspired in part by Konrath’s move away the world of legacy publishing and his proselytizing to other writers to make the same choice.

Konrath and Eisler argue that the paper book is now on the road to becoming a “niche market,” and writers and readers will be better off in the new world of the ebook. It is a convincing theory, one reinforced by Amazon’s announcement that in 2010 the company sold more books for the Kindle ereader than paper copies, along with the popularity of the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad, a point Eisler highlights early on. This means that writers will make more money while readers will pay less and enjoy access to a wider range of content. The numbers used to support the claim are pretty convincing:

Joe: the 25% royalty on ebooks [legacy publishers] offer is actually 14.9% after everyone gets their cut. 14.9% on a price the publisher sets.

Barry: a 25% royalty on the net revenue produced by an ebook equals 17.5% of the retail price after Amazon takes its 30% cut, and 14.9% after the agents takes 15% of the 17.5%.

Think of it this way: by publishing a novel or story collection as an ebook on Smashwords or B&N or Amazon, the author retains 70% of the profit from the sales of his or her work. That is a margin too wide to ignore, or as Konrath puts it, “in the long run a 70% royalty wins.”

The benefits of circumventing the legacy publishers don’t stop there. From the shortened time between when a book is finished to when it reaches the market, to the unprecedented level of creative control, plus a healthy—and growing—list of the indie-published authors enjoying healthy sales, Be the Monkey does, at times, make a very convincing case for going it alone.

Or as alone as possible. In some of the most informative and forward-thinking sections of the discussion, Konrath and Eisler muse on what the digital revolution in book-making will mean for the industry at large, beyond the realm of writers and readers.  They refuse to glorify or gloss over the substantial workload an author is shouldering by avoiding legacy route. The self-published author assumes the role of writer, editor, and copyeditor. They become responsible for cover art, front and back cover copy, the writer’s biography, formatting text, marketing and promotionthe list goes on.  Konrath believes this space may be filled by what he calls “E-stributorsa combination of publisher and manager” that will take over these tasks for a one-time fee or a percentage of the book’s profits, leaving the author to concentrate on what is his most important job: writing.

When I used the word “sprawling” to describe Be the Monkey, understand that what Eisler and Konrath have written isn’t an actual book; it is a series of conversations recorded over a long stretch of time that covered a wide swath of subjects.

The tangents are many, as happens in any discussion between two people comfortable with each other. In Part One there is the back and forth about over Youtube video of a monkey raping a frog and long diatribes regarding the messy, self-defeating nature of the Big 6/Legacy publishers.  This is understandable; familiarity breeds contempt, and we all bitch about work, especially when our bitching turns out to be right.

Parts Two suffers from bad pacing, but is just as informative as the first section. Most of discussion focuses on the decision by mega-successful indie-author Amanda Hocking to sign a contract with St. Martin’s Press for a four-book series, her first foray into paper publication. Much space is also spent elaborating on pricing and how more cheaply priced books lead to increased sales and more profit, and on what the relationship between writers and theoretical “E-stributors”  might develop into. The section becomes bogged down by Eisler and Konrath answering critics of claims made and analogies used in Part One.

Part Three is even slower than Two. The separate deals Eisler and Konrath struck with Amazon’s new publishing imprint and defending these decisions, Eisler’s in particular since Konrath continues to self-publish. To their credit, the authors make a legitimate point about signing the best deal being most important, and working with a publisher who understands the what direction the industry is heading and drafts contracts accordingly. It is an educating insight into the shifting sands of the publishing industry, and the future of brick and mortar bookstores, but not all that entertaining or engaging.  A real opportunity was lost in not expanding the second to last section, “Next Steps in the Evolution of Ebooks.” Digital storytelling is in its infancy; discussing the exciting work being done and the innovations that have the potential to alter how we tell and receive textual narratives is a subject worth exploration by authors like Konrath and Eisler.

Because Be the Monkey is a transcript of a live conversation, assembled to be sold and shared quickly, it is unfair to judge Be the Monkey by the standards I would usually apply to a normal work of non-fiction. As a text it suffers from being uneven and discursive, but it serves as a useful primer to the state of publishing at exists today, and offers some tantalizing peeks at what may be coming down the road. Maybe readers would have benefitted from a transcript edited and crafted into a series of essays with smoother narrative flow. but Eisler and Konrath deserve credit for the willingness to spread the word to other writers and readers, and anyone else who is interested, that change is here for the future of books and storytelling, and there is no choice but to embrace it.

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